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PAINTING PARADOX
by Jo Ann Baldinger
Pasatiempo/Santa Fe New Mexican
March 12-18, 2004

Art historians place Frederick Hammersley in a tradition of abstract geometric painters that extends from Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian to Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, with further reaches into minimalism, shaped paintings and graphic design. Nearly 50 years ago Los Angeles critic and curator Jules Langsner coined the term Abstract Classicists (in contrast to the better-known Abstract Expressionists) to characterize the fresh, somewhat austere art being produced by Hammersley and his fellow Californians Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson and John McLaughlin.

In 1959 Langsner organized a landmark exhibition, Four Abstract Classicists, that traveled from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and Queens University Belfast. In the exhibition catalog Langsner described the four artists' work as "hard edge painting," which, he wrote, was "not intended to evoke in the spectator any recollections of specific shapes."

Not that Hammersley cares what art historians and art critics make of him. "That's just what they do," he said in a recent interview at his home in Albuquerque. "It doesn't really concern me."

Hammersley left California in 1968 to teach at the University of New Mexico and has lived in New Mexico ever since. He shares his Nob Hill house with -- in addition to a long-haired calico cat named Corn Flake -- hundreds of his paintings and drawings (many of them displayed in hand-made frames), stacks of notebooks in which he plots out his art, and other notebooks filled with verbal streams of consciousness from which he chooses the punlike titles for his paintings.

Now in his 85th year, the artist retains a playful curiosity and appears quietly amused by the world and his fellow human beings. "I had a very strange family," he remarked at one point, adding, "Of course, all people are very strange." During our free-flowing conversation his wry humor was frequently directed at himself and some of the unavoidable consequences of having lived a long time. "I hope I can adapt to this age bit," he said. "I find it so annoying -- I forget what I'm talking about. I go around the bush and forget what garden I'm in."

Hammersley has been rediscovered in the past few years. His work was included in SITE Santa Fe's 2001 Biennial and in exhibitions at UNM, San Francisco's Modernism Gallery, Gary Snyder Fine Art in New York, the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., and LA Louver in Venice, Calif. Reviewing the latter show, the Los Angeles Times' David Pagel wrote, "Hammersley's paintings have the presence of talismans, touchstones for a couple of subsequent generations of artists and viewers who are inspired by the quirky clarity of their vision." An exhibition of Hammersley's work opens Saturday, March 13, at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, with a reception for the artist from 2 to 4 p.m. On March 27 Hammersley participates in a SITE Santa Fe dialogue with author and scholar Arden Reed.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1919, Hammersley go his start in art as a freshman at the University of Idaho, painting campaign signs for a friend who was running for class president. "Then I got a part-time job painting signs for the local movie theater, for $1 a day. I was very pleased," he recalled.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to study at the Chouinard Art Institute. Subsequently he served as a draftsman in the Army Signal Corps in France and Germany during and immediately after World War II. He was sent to Paris in 1944, only days after the city was liberated.

"It was just marvelous," Hammersley said. "There were no cars, just bicycles. I went to the museums, met Picasso and Brancusi at their studios and took classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts."

Hammersley returned to Los Angeles in 1946 for further studies at Chouinard and at the Jepson Art Institute. After he left art school, in 1951, "it dawned on me that there are only seven tools a painter uses: line -- that's not very important -- shape, value, form, color, pattern and texture." Bored with the classical still lifes and figure paintings he'd learned to do in school, Hammersley stumbled upon what his calls his hunch technique.

"I had a little canvas and I was going to do a portrait, and I divided it into 16 squares. Then I had the thought, 'It would be nice to paint that square blue.' So I did. Then the one next to it became yellow ocher. And every one of the squares came without me thinking. And I thought, 'If I could paint without thinking, that's for me!" In a 1993 artist's statement he wrote, "Nothing was done unless it felt right.... I'd see part of or the entire painting in my mind's eye. When that happened, I'd draw it in a book, color it, and wait. When both of us were ready, I'd paint it."

The idea of paradox is a recurring theme in Hammersley's work. "Our whole life is based on it: woman and man, light and dark. It's really quite remarkable. I love words and jokes and riddles. A good joke does what a good painting does, or a good poem," he said. "It does two things at once, opposite to each other" -- and he demonstrated his meaning by lining us his two index fingers and pointing them in opposite directions.

Hammersley has continued to use his intuitive technique exclusively. "One day in my studio, when I had 14 canvases in various stages, I stood in front of each one and waited for a sensation to arrive. But nothing happened, so I didn't do any painting that day."

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